Sometimes, when we’re focussed on the anxiety we may find that we’ve overlooked something else. The teenage years are undoubtedly testing times but is there something more at play?
What are special needs?
Each teenager and child will have different physical, social and emotional needs. They may also struggle with mental health conditions such as anxiety. But, as a parent or carer, what do you do if you suspect your child may have a special educational need (potentially including autism, other neurological differences like ADHD or emotional difficulties)? What if the anxiety is created by a wider need?
The charity Family Lives note that ‘’The term ‘Special Educational Needs’ is used to describe learning difficulties or disabilities that make it harder for children to learn than most children of the same age. Children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) are likely to need extra or different help from that given to other children their age. This help is known as special educational provision.’’
Children including teens can have different difficulties that can be classified as SEN by an accredited practitioner such as a psychiatrist, educational psychologist, occupational or speech therapist or a SENDCO inclusion leader in the school. Difficulties can include emotional and behavioural, such as low self esteem and lack of confidence, an inability to follow class instructions and ‘acting out’ at school/ aggression. In some cases, there may be anxiety and panic attacks or depression. Or, as we experienced, very few obvious difficulties until mental health issues arose, due to autistic ‘masking’. We’ll explain a bit more about that in a moment.
Children & teens may struggle with the academic side of school, struggling with reading, spelling, maths or grasping abstract concepts. Class activities can be difficult for a variety of reasons, especially if your child has a learning need. Some children also have speech and language or communication needs, and may have delays in this area, finding it hard to communicate with their peers or teacher and relate to other people. Others have a physical disability which makes life trickier for them to be in class or study at the same level.
However, help is at hand!
In this blog, we will look at what to do if you think your teen has emotional difficulties and what to do if you suspect their level of anxiety could be related to autism.
Firstly it is important to note that in the UK education system, each child has the right to access learning at their own level. They must receive a balanced and wide curriculum, which can be differentiated, from Early Years to the later key stages at age 16-18. Most children with SEN will be educated in a mainstream school (some are home schooled or in specialist schools as it depends on each child).
If you are concerned about your child/ teen:
1) Speak to the class teacher and school SENDCO to express your concerns
It is vital to have a good dialogue with the class teacher, who sees your child every day. It is important to express concerns about your child’s behaviour or mental health if it comes up and if they are struggling academically or with their peers. The teacher can set up a meeting with the school SEN Coordinator and this may give you greater clarity, especially if your child is falling behind other children.
They can put into place plans of action, known as Individualised Education Plans (IEPs) to help your child in class. The teacher may recommend that your child needs one to one support from a teaching assistant, who will carry out the action points of the IEP.
If they are really struggling, in consultation with you, the SENCO may apply for an EHCP (formerly known as a statement of needs), where the school receives funding to best support the person, for example by hiring their own teaching assistant or equipment to help in class.
If your teen is under a psychiatrist, it is important to involve them separately to assess what is going on and note their symptoms.
2) See their GP and specialist: What if their anxiety is because of autism? How do I realise?
Raisingchildren.net.au says that ‘Anxiety is a normal part of children’s development, but children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can experience anxiety more intensely and more often than other children.’
They also comment, ‘Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) feel many of the same worries and fears as other children. But when children and teenagers with ASD get worried or anxious, the way they show their anxiety can look a lot like common characteristics of ASD.
If you are concerned your child may be on the autism spectrum, it is best to speak to your GP and get a referral to a specialist.
Symptoms of anxiety (and other conditions) can also be very similar to autism. These include:
- Insisting on routine
- Trouble sleeping
- Tantrums and meltdowns
- Social withdrawal
- Obsessions and rituals
- Stimming (self stimulation) by rocking, spinning or flapping hands
- Self harm eg biting, scratching, headbanging
You can get your teen assessed and it is best to rely on the advice of professionals such as GP doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, SENCOs and any therapists involved in your child’s care. It is also important to trust your gut feeling too as a parent.
There are a number of ways to assist with anxiety including exposure therapy, CBT, social stories to prepare for social situations. An occupational therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist can assist with this after an assessment.
Not all teenagers with anxiety will have autism. If your teen is struggling badly with anxiety, they can access medication and counselling through their GP or psychiatrist.
As a parent or carer, it is important to note your teens behaviour patterns and if you have a strong feeling that more support is needed or your teen is distressed and asking for further help , reach out for it.
Some helpful charities;
Other useful organisations;
Teen Calm is a new subscription box for teens struggling with anxiety. Find out more here.